The Shape of Truth and of Error

Even if you’ve only been paying attention to me since I started this blog, one thing you might have noticed is that I am interested in other people’s various worldviews. In particular I find myself compelled by their structures or their shapes.* I enjoy looking at these worldviews on their own, but I also like gathering together different tools for analyzing each worldview. For instance, I wrote about contextual and idiosyncratic theology and philosophy, and in the course of that I described W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds. Even more than Jones, Richard Beck’s writing at Experimental Theology on Terror Management Theory, derived from the insights of Ernest Becker, especially influences my thought. Beyond my own favourites there are many ways of describing the shape of a worldview.

Source: Rob Deutscher at

Source: Rob Deutscher at

When I mention these general ways of organizing worldviews to friends, family, and acquaintances, some people respond well and some people are resistant. I suspect that many people resist because looking at the forms and functions worldviews generally take calls into question how true those worldviews can or might be. Should we be suspicious of a worldview that looks quite generic in its shape, if not in its details? What are the odds that a worldview is true if it is good at resolving psychological tensions, what many people call wish-fulfillment? I think, though, that this is the wrong way of looking at the problem.

To begin with a concrete example of the shape a worldview might take: Beck’s Becker-derived work, in very broad terms, describes how a person attempts to avoid facing or dealing with their existential fear of death. People deny the reality of death by investing themselves in immortality projects so that they can believe something of themselves lives beyond their physical death. That immortality might come in the form of children and grandchildren, of knowledge discovered on behalf of humanity, or of some monument or artwork; it might also be physical or spiritual immortality on earth or in heaven. But this project can only confer immortality if it is valuable, so this person develops beliefs that give value to their legacy (or they choose their immortality project according to their inherited beliefs). This is how and why we make worldviews, cultures, and religions. So, for instance, being a famous entrepreneur and philanthropist can only secure immortality for you if entrepreneurialism, philanthropy, and recognition matter; therefore you must believe that these things matter in order for them to secure your immortality.

As a result of this dynamic, a person will experience any threat to their legacy, or to the system of beliefs which make their legacy valuable, as though it were a threat against their own life. Psychologically, losing their worldview is the same as losing their immortality. Some worldviews are especially vulnerable because the mere existence of other worldviews is a threat to them; some people are especially unwilling to face their fear of death, and so react more violently than usual to any such threats. At worst, worldviews become violent fundamentalism; at best, they foster creativity without becoming reactionary (usually at the cost of certainty and ease).

Richard Beck’s research in particular has shown that many Christians use their Christianity in this way, as a means of avoiding the fear of death. They are therefore unlikely to be hospitable to outsiders, or to anyone who challenges their faith. However, not all Christians use their Christianity in this way: some face their fear of death directly, and are often motivated by their Christianity to face their fear of death. These Christians are more likely to be tolerant and even welcoming to outsiders and are willing to challenge their faith in order to help those in need. Yet no one can face their fear of death all of the time, and so all of us will rely on our worldviews much of the time to avoid facing our fear of death. I would be interested to see what other religions are like in this regard: are any—perhaps Buddhism?—especially good at encouraging people to face their fear of death?

I suspect this information will cause many people to seriously doubt the truth of most religions. It is reasonable to suspect that motivated beliefs—beliefs which we hold for some reason other than empirical evidence or logical argument—are not true beliefs. After all, we hold them for reasons which a) were not based upon argument or reason in the first place and b) are not usually subject to reasonable criticism. Certainly Beck’s research should give any religious person pause: is their faith informed most by a relationship with the truth, or most by some psychological need? But then, this is a question which should arrest anyone, religious or not: how sure are you that your worldview is more informed by reason and evidence, or by psychological need? Are you not motivated to believe that you are not motivated to hold your beliefs?

Source: Nick Dawson at

Source: Nick Dawson at | My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

However, I think a universal claim about motivated beliefs is not the best response. I’d like to float a particular response past you. Let me know if you think it holds up.

Imagine someone whose beliefs are unusually true; their beliefs predict things about the world far better than usual, and their beliefs correspond to the world (or the metaphysical realm, if you like) far better than most people’s beliefs. Perhaps they are inspired, enlightened, or superintelligent. Their worldview may not be perfect, but it is as good as humanly possible. Now, would you predict that this person’s worldview would not have the sort of structure I have been discussing? Would you predict that this person’s worldview did not fulfill psychological needs? Or would you predict that this person would arrange the pieces—the truest possible pieces we have ever seen—in a way which still fulfilled psychological needs and still conformed to contextual or idiosyncratic philosophical discourse?

If you predict that this person’s worldview would not fulfill psychological needs, then it is fair for you to say that any worldview which fulfills psychological needs is likely to be false. However, that seems a strange prediction to make, since that person will still have psychological needs which only their worldviews can fulfill, and will still be subject to contextual and idiosyncratic limits. Or, at the very least, since that seems like an incredible exception to typical human behaviour, it seems to me that you would need to overcome a high burden of proof to argue that such a person would not still use their worldview to meet certain psychological needs. It seems more plausible to me that this person would find a way to make their worldview fulfill their psychological needs at least some of the time. Therefore discovering that a worldview fulfills psychological needs should not make us any more suspicious of that worldview in itself.** That said, if it does any of those things more than we would expect the truest possible worldview would do, and if it is less subject to reasoned or evidence-based correction than we would expect, then we should probably be suspicious.

*Structure and shape are metaphors I probably overuse.
**Furthermore, and similarly, it seems plausible that this person would articulate their worldview according to their context’s vocabulary and talking points, and in light of their own idiosyncratic concerns. Discovering that a worldview adheres to their discursive context and their own idiosyncrasies should not make us any more suspicious of that worldview, unless it does these things more than we’d expect of the best possible worldview.

5 thoughts on “The Shape of Truth and of Error

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